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Ted Haggard's Hell on Earth

A trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma lays bare the fundamentalism that made the disgraced pastor Ted Haggard live in terror of his own homosexuality.
 
 
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According to Bishop Carlton Pearson, Ted Haggard isn't going to hell. He's already in hell.

Pearson, 53, was a leading light of the contemporary Pentecostal -- or charismatic -- movement until he rejected the concept of hell a few years ago. Hell, Pearson says, does not exist. Salvation by Jesus, he maintains, is not required for eternal grace. Everyone is saved. The only hell is right here on earth, a creation of fundamentalism, scriptural literalism and the terror that fills the hearts of fundamentalists at each impure thought, each shameful moment of sexual longing. "I'm not trying to convert anybody," Pearson told me recently. "I'm just trying to convince everybody that they're loved. Ultimately redeemed, whoever they are." Pearson calls the notion that a supposedly merciful God would torture people in an eternal hell "absurd and vulgar." It's no wonder then, that Pearson was roundly condemned by his peers, including the pre-scandal Haggard, for his radical views. Haggard, Pearson said, "denounced me and said, 'hell is a physical place.' ... Well, he's right, and he's in that hell right now."

Pearson has known Haggard since they were classmates at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa in the 1970s. ORU, founded in 1963 by the televangelist and faith healer Oral Roberts, demanded "holiness" and required students to sign an honor code pledging not to drink, smoke, dance, party, have sex, or even think about sex. Engaging in any of these activities was evidence of bodily and spiritual occupation by demons that had to be cast out. "If you didn't cast them out, you bound them, 'we bind you in the name of Jesus, we bind that spirit, I rebuke and bind that spirit,'" says Pearson. "So we were always rebuking and binding the things we could exorcise from us. If we wanted to smoke or we wanted to have sex outside of covenant, but we weren't, but the desire never left us, we would just rebuke and bind it. 'I bind it in the name of Jesus.' That's what Ted was trying to do with his life, probably came to the conclusion that he couldn't handle it."

Haggard's father, said Pearson, was an intimidating 400-pound Pentecostal preacher who cast out devils. If he had known his son was gay, Pearson maintains, he "would've cast the devil out of him. ... And Ted would have spit and rolled and frothed. And he might have gyrated. Usually they vomit or they scream, or something like that." Haggard came to ORU "scarred somewhat by his encounters with his father."

Homosexuality, of course, was not tolerated at ORU. Pearson sang with Roberts' traveling musical group, the World Action Singers, from which Roberts expelled two members because they were gay. Roberts' own oldest son, Ronald, committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 37. Pearson says that Ronald, too, was gay.

Roberts' younger son Richard is now at the helm of ORU, where recently he welcomed the lollapalooza of the evangelical world, Teen Mania's Acquire the Fire. There, entertained by Christian rock bands and "dramas" -- multimedia presentations blending videos with live acting -- middle and high school kids were relentlessly reminded how to resist "deception," temptations like sex and secularism and MTV and Aeropostale. They registered their own holiness when they gave Roberts his enthusiastic applause line for denouncing the Discovery Channel documentary that reported evidence that Jesus had a family: Any suggestion that Jesus himself experienced sexual desire was expelled from the arena, where 7,000 kids from four states paid upwards of $60 apiece to get "branded by God."

To much hooting and hollering, Roberts declared: "You'd have to be a sucker to believe some lie that some Hollywood producer put up in order to make some money." That didn't stop Teen Mania personnel from peddling their own merchandise all day, including a "T-shirt for the ladies" that bore the slogan "Citizen of Heaven."

But despite the denunciations of carnality, the featured band, Unhindered, played and replayed a song -- well known to all the kids around me -- calling for Jesus to "consume me from the inside out." It was like an anthem to the puppy love of adolescence, with a strange homoeroticism to the band's front man pledging "my heart and my soul/I give you control/to consume me from the inside out, Lord." (I imagined kids doodling "Jesus + me 4ever" in the margins of their notebooks in school on Monday). But it reflected a fundamentalist displacement theory of sorts: if Jesus occupies you, consumes you, there's no room for the devil. Until those pesky hormones get in the way.

While the kids may have been unhindered in their embrace of Jesus, unmentioned was Pastor Ted's own thumbprint on Teen Mania. Before his fall, Haggard was a partner in Teen Mania's "Battle Cry for a Generation" campaign and a frequent speaker at its events. But his ghost was still hanging over Tulsa, from the enforced purity of the Acquire the Fire concert to the bookstore at the brand new Victory Bible Church across the street, where an entire section was devoted to the evils of homosexuality and how to "convert" to heterosexuality. The pastor, Billy Joe Daugherty, who hosted the Acquire the Fire event, was raising money for the still-unfinished children's wing of the church. There, they hope to build a hands-on creationism museum for the kids. Because it's never too early to start grooming another generation to be consumed by Jesus.

Sarah Posner has covered the religious right for the American Prospect , The Gadflyer, and AlterNet. She is at work on a book about televangelists in politics.

 
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